Tompkins Harrison Matteson focuses on Maryland in ‘history painting’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

We hope that you enjoy this painting (on loan from the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis).
If you visit the museum, this work is on view in the Smith Gallery.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson (American, 1840–95)
Cecil Calvert Presenting the Acts of Toleration to Governor William Stone
(Founding of Maryland)
, 1853
Oil on canvas
37″h x 51″w
Lent by the Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545–2551

This work is an example of a history painting, a genre in which artists depicted events from the past that they often did not witness. History painters created their works from a synthesis of sources, and often the intent of the painting was to reinforce particular values or political ideals. In this work, Tompkins Matteson represented a group of early English settlers and Native Americans in the colony of Maryland, established in March 1634 near present-day St. Mary’s City. These people represent members of the Piscataway First Nations, including the Yaocomaco, Nanticoke, and Chicanone. Underpinned by stereotypical Anglo-European attitudes and artistic conventions of the time, Matteson combined and reinterpreted historical events to create a romanticized depiction of harmony between indigenous peoples and white colonists. Although relations between English settlers and local tribes were initially more peaceful in Maryland than in other colonies (in contrast to Virginia, for example), Matteson omitted any visual references to later conflicts with Europeans, the displacement of First Nation peoples from their land, and the loss of their traditional ways of life. 

Rather than depicting the moment of Maryland’s colonization as traditionally thought, this scene more likely commemorates the passing of the Act of Toleration (1649), 15 years after the settlers on two ships, the Ark and the Dove, founded St. Mary’s City as the colony’s capital. Matteson portrayed individuals who, although real historical figures, were not all actually present together in early Maryland. Among these persons is Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore (1605–75, who never came to Maryland), standing next to Jesuit Father Andrew White (1579–1656, who had left the colony by 1645), shown handing over the Act of Toleration to the colonial governor, William Stone (c. 1603–60).

Intrigued by encounters between Native Americans and early colonial settlers, Matteson painted several subjects based on this theme (see example below). Like John Elliot Preaching to Indians (1849), which represents the seventeenth-century Puritan missionary (1604–90) giving a sermon to Algonquian peoples in colonial Massachusetts, the Native Americans on the left of the Maryland picture are similarly stereotyped as subservient to the white settlers in a woodland landscape. Note how the mother holding a child (wrapped in cloth) kneels in deference to the central group, resting her chin on her hand in contemplation, while the man to her left is the only figure cast in shadow. By portraying the Native Americans as attentive and deferential, Matteson suggested that they were amenable to converting to Christianity and embraced the adoption of English cultural practices.

Established by the Catholic Calverts as a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution, Maryland attracted colonists of multiple Christian faiths. As the community grew, internal disputes compelled the implementation of the Act of Toleration, which temporarily ensured freedom of worship for all Christians in the colony, though it notably excluded Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims.

Known for his historical, allegorical, and genre paintings, Matteson was born in Peterboro, New York. Interestingly, he received his first artistic instruction from a Native American draftsman and carver in nearby Morrisville, and was later trained by portraitist Alvah Bradish (1806–1901). Primarily self-taught, Matteson also studied at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, NY (under famed history painter, John Trumbull, 1756–1843) and exhibited at the National Academy of Design. Matteson was influenced considerably by his contemporaries such as John Vanderlyn (1775–1852), John Gadsby Chapman (1808–89), and William Henry Powell (1823–79).  

Matteson’s Maryland painting was included in the recent exhibition, Treasures of State: Maryland’s Art Collection (June 24–October 22, 2023), which interpreted the art collections of the Maryland State Archives in combination with those of the museum, offering public access to works of fine and decorative art that are rarely seen outside of Annapolis.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson
John Eliot Preaching to Indians, 1849
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH